No. 19 Northwestern warmed up for its first Big Ten championship game appearance by holding on for a 24-16 victory over Illinois on Saturday afternoon in Evanston, Ill.
West Division champion Northwestern (8-4, 8-1) will battle No. 10 Ohio State (11-1, 8-1) on Dec. 1 in Indianapolis, needing a win to earn its first trip to the Rose Bowl in 23 seasons. The schools haven’t met since Oct. 29, 2016, and Northwestern hasn’t beaten Ohio State since 2004.
The Wildcats captured the Land of Lincoln trophy against their in-state rival for the fourth year in a row as they rushed for a season-high 261 yards — paced by freshman Isaiah Bowser’s 166 yards on 18 carries.
In his final home game, four-year starting quarterback Clayton Thorson completed 12 of 17 passes for 110 yards and two scores and also ran for a 1-yard touchdown.
Illinois (4-8, 2-7) wrapped up its seventh straight losing season despite outgaining Northwestern 435-371. Graduate transfer quarterback AJ Bush Jr. hit 23 of 39 passes for 281 yards and 1 touchdown in his final college game while junior running back Reggie Corbin rushed 13 times for 78 yards.
Bowser ripped off a 55-yard run on Northwestern’s first play from scrimmage, which triggered a 92-yard touchdown drive capped by Thorson’s 8-yard strike to junior wideout Bennett Skowronek.
Illinois responded with two drives deep into Northwestern territory, but settled for field goals of 21 and 29 yards by senior Chase McLaughlin. Spurred by Illinois’ move within 7-6, Northwestern struck for two more touchdowns before halftime to make it 21-6.
Thorson plunged in from 1 yard out with 3:43 left in the second quarter, then raced the Wildcats down the field during the two-minute drill and tossed a 5-yard TD pass to sophomore wideout Riley Lees with 17 seconds to go in the half.
Graduate student Jake Collins added a 25-yard field goal on the first drive of the second half to boost Northwestern’s lead to 24-6. Illinois had another red-zone assault halted by Northwestern, which led to McLaughlin’s 26-yard boot that cut the margin to 24-9 with 13:27 to play.
Illinois finally found the end zone on its next drive when Bush hit sophomore wideout Ricky Smalling for a 10-yard score with 7:57 to play.
Illinois pushed to Northwestern’s 17-yard line with 3:44 to play — its fifth march into the Wildcats’ red zone — but sophomore linebacker Paddy Fisher stopped a streak of six consecutive Bush completions with an interception. Northwestern converted a third-and-11 and ran out the clock.
—Field Level Media